First Things First

The Effects of Childhood Trauma

Of the 76 million children living in the United States, a staggering 60 percent (46 million) of them will experience violence, abuse, crime and psychological trauma before they turn 18. That’s according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Believe it or not, home life plays a huge part in these statistics. Specifically, children from single-parent homes seem to be at higher risk for adverse childhood experiences than those who live with both parents.

The National Survey of Children’s Health asked parents of 95,677 children under 18 if their kids had ever seen or heard “any parents, guardians or any other adults in the home slap, hit, kick, punch or beat each other up.” Nineteen of every 1,000 children living with their two married biological parents experienced that type of behavior. Sadly, the exposure rate was seven times higher (144 children per 1,000) in homes with a divorced or separated mother. These comparisons are adjusted for differences across age, sex, race, family income, poverty status and parent’s education level.

In an Institute for Family Studies article, Nicholas Zill, a psychologist and child and family well-being researcher with more than 40 years of experience, writes:

“Experiencing family violence is stressful for children, undercuts their respect and admiration for parents who engage in abusive behavior, and is associated with increased rates of emotional and behavioral problems at home and in school. For children of never-married mothers who witnessed family violence, 58 percent had conduct or academic problems. Among children of divorced or separated mothers, nearly half of those exposed to family violence, 48 percent, had had conduct or academic problems at school.”

So, how do adverse childhood experiences affect children long-term? Do they set the stage for greater difficulty later in life? Are children resilient? 

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE), conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, studied more than 17,000 adults to find out. It examined the links between traumatic childhood experiences (abuse, neglect and family dysfunction including divorce, incarceration, substance abuse and mental health issues) and current adult health and well-being. 

According to that study, exposure to adverse childhood experiences hinders the ability to form stable and healthy adult relationships. Plus, those experiences increase risk for:

In contrast, healthy relationships at home, school and in the community can nurture a child’s physical and emotional growth. Children need these types of relationships from birth forward in order to thrive and grow into productive adults.  

What can you do?

Safe, stable, nurturing relationships and environments are among the most powerful and protective forces in a child’s life. So in order to promote healthy child development, we must be diligent to create those safe, stable, nurturing relationships and environments. As a community, we all share responsibility for the well-being of our children. 

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